Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What We Do Isn't Secret Anymore*

*Apologies to the Germs for borrowing and modifying this song title.

The hardest part for me about being an adoptee is that for so long it was a secret. I always knew I was adopted, but I wasn't supposed to talk about it. For so long, many of us who were adopted within our race or ethnicity were expected to pass, to pretend we were like other kids. We weren't, but there was nothing we could do. Closed adoptions were hush-hush. So on top of the abandonment every adoptee feels well into adulthood, we grew up with a super-size dose of invalidation too. And we couldn't tell anyone about it or about what we were feeling. I tucked it away for so long that despite a rough adolescence and a rough entry into adulthood, I didn't think I felt anything about it at all. I fell kind of ass-backwards into meeting my birth mother when I was 26 and it wasn't until I'd gone too far in the process to turn back that I realized I might have some issues to work out.

Someone once told me that adoption is like grafting a tree. It's not an easy process, and sometimes it doesn't take. You have to give the graft special care and attention, and even then it doesn't just fuse to the existing tree. And even if it does take, you can't just pretend the tree was like that all along and that the new part didn't come from somewhere else because it wasn't and it didn't.

A few years ago, my birth mother and I did some poking around to try to get answers to some questions we had about my adoption. For example, when I was born, she was told that my adoption was pending and that I would be placed within a few days. It didn't actually happen until I was six months old, and six months is an eternity in a baby's life. There were a few other inconsistencies in the stories each of us heard. The agency she'd brought me to had long since closed but another agency was handling their records. We investigated with them, united in this mission. My birth mother and I had a very tiny shared history: only the nine months she was pregnant with me. We had never even met face to face at my birth. But still we knew each other, and this process brought meaning to the short time we shared, this time I could not remember and that she tried to forget. We scrutinized every detail and discussed it all over and over. We never really got the answers we wanted, but the asking did make us closer.

This agency does a lot of international and open adoptions now and offers services to all parts of the adoption triad: adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents. Its post-adoption division offers a monthly support group for adult adoptees that I decided to join. It was so interesting and helpful to meet other adoptees. There are issues and personality traits we share just because we'd all been through this one thing: closed adoption. I found this fascinating. As we took turns talking, I'd hear someone else describe a feeling I'd had. I'd hear sentiments I'd felt expressed in someone else's words. Unbelievable, even though we were all at different points in our journeys as adoptees. Some had been reunited happily, others less so. Some were in various stages of searching, still others were coming to terms with the fact that they might never connect with their biological families. But all of us were hurting in similar ways.

When Bee was born, I stopped going to the group. First it was because I didn't want to leave her for that long, but then it was because my relationship with my birth mother suddenly got easier and the questions I was still asking were suddenly less important. There was less to ponder and to analyze and more to just enjoy. I didn't think I needed the group anymore.

When she passed away very suddenly earlier this year, I wanted - no, I needed - back in. The group accepted me with open arms. I was pregnant - innocuous enough but strangely evocative of "adoption issues" for me - and I was mourning the loss of someone I loved so much, someone who at one point in my life I thought I would never meet. I worried that my issues were irrelevant and even painful to the others: after all, I had reconnected with my birth mother and it had become wonderful. I had been accepted and welcomed by her family. I was about to become a biological mother, again, and I got to keep my babies. My circle was complete. And my search was over: it had effectively ended when she died. There would be no more discovery. Yet I was sharing a space with others who were still searching and exploring, and even more to the point, who felt profound loss over these things - reunion, fertility, biological parenthood - that brought me such joy.

It never occurred to me that I would be stepping over a line if I brought my baby with me to a group but perhaps it should have. I missed a couple after Teeny was born and I was anxious to get back, but I didn't want to leave Johnny with two at bedtime. (Side note: This is the hardest part of the day for parents of multiple wee ones whose bedtimes are not yet in sync. Keeping one quiet and happy while trying to put the other one to bed is next to impossible. Getting through it takes no talent, just patience. You either luck out and everyone behaves or you don't, in which case you can only make one happy at a time. We try to eliminate as many of these Scylla-and-Charybdis single-parent-multiple-baby bedtimes as possible. If Johnny makes plans with friends, he comes home before 7 or leaves after 7:30. I take Teeny with me anywhere I should find myself in the evenings.) So I didn't even think twice about bringing her with me to the group. She slept through the whole thing.

Asleep or not, her presence definitely influenced the conversation. Probably we would not have talked quite so much about the first few months of life and about how many of us had no documentation of where we were or who cared for us and how for months beyond Teeny's current age, had she not been there. The others looked from her to me and commented on how bonded we were already, and she was only two months old. Some of us didn't even meet our mothers until we were six months old. What happened to us before then? Look at how aware this baby is. She knows her mama already. We looked at Teeny and mourned the loss of our collective babyhood, fretting in vain over something none of us could ever undo or fix.

So today, when I got a call from the group leader three hours before the group was scheduled to begin, I knew right away that she'd be asking me to keep Teeny home. I was not happy, since I had worked hard to plan a day that included four people's needs, my work, necessary errands, the group, and other things that had to get done today, before the holidays. I'd planned it all to the letter and didn't want to upset Johnny's day by surprising him with a last minute Singular Bedtime Extravaganza. But still, it was completely reasonable for her to ask this. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt anyone by having my kid there. So I was a little surprised when she started the conversation by asking "So, how did having your baby at the group last month work for you?"

I said "Huh, funny you should ask that. I was fine. I assumed you were calling to tell me not to bring her again." But I was right. She was. She hemmed and she hawed and she went on and on about all the things we discuss in the room and how perhaps it would be traumatizing for a baby to be exposed to such emotion. She said a lot of silly stuff like that which pissed me off, but she did finally just come out and say that perhaps I was being insensitive to the others and that the meeting was for "members only." I felt my face get hot and I started to cry. She was right and I was ashamed. I could see that a baby could kick up someone's feelings about all of these issues. I felt selfish and terrible.

Truthfully, I felt even worse because of the way in which this was messaged to me. I am very sensitive and, admittedly, sometimes very reactive. I need time and space to process my feelings lest I act out and say or do things I might later regret in an effort to protect myself. These are traits not uncommon among adoptees. Yet the group leader, a social worker at an adoption agency, didn't give me - an adoptee prone to feeling rejection even when there is none - much time to process. The last group met a month ago, yet she called me on the phone at work where I spoke to her in a shared space with no privacy three hours before group. She suggested casually that I just find childcare, which is not an option for us. She couldn't know that this is a point of contention and that her suggestion would touch a nerve. I suggested somewhat obnoxiously that I just not attend. She seemed unconcerned at this, which exacerbated my anger and made me want to quit altogether. She talked about making the others feel safe and while I agreed with her, the way in which she spoke to me, or perhaps more accurately, the way in which I heard her, made me feel irreparably unsafe. I had trusted her, but now I could never open up to her or in front of her again.

So I won't be attending the group again. I will miss the friends I've made there. I wish them well and hope that they find peace with their searches and their journeys. I truly hope I did not upset anyone by bringing my baby. Some of us are friends on Facebook and in real life so I hope I continue to hear about everyone's experiences.

Maybe it's not such a big deal that the way I parent Teeny got me kicked out of the group. Maybe it was time anyway. My experience is changing now. My search has ended and the journey is taking a different turn. I would not have chosen this path: I miss my birth mother dreadfully and there isn't a thing in the world I wouldn't do to have her back for just one more day. But now that I am here, I think I can navigate on my own. I have a bigger family now. Relatives old and new; adoptive, biological and in-laws. Some of them know my face and my voice because they've known me for ten years, others for 38 years, and some of them because of who I look like, sound like and act like. All of them are valuable to me in ways I can hardly express. And I get to be myself, exactly as I am, with everyone.

For a long time after reuniting with my birth mother, I struggled to make it work. It's hard to know how to put all the pieces together because there is little precedence in society for this, no manual to follow. No one can tell you how to make a relationship with the one person who should know you better than anyone in the world but doesn't. I grew inside of her - you can't get more intimate than that - and years later I recognized her by her smell, her voice, the shape of her eyes, her hands and her hips, but I didn't know what books she liked to read (same as me!) or if she liked to travel (yes!) or if she had a cat or a dog (no!). For every step we took I had more questions and I worried more about the rest of our families and hurting feelings, stepping on toes. But I'm not worried anymore.

The best part for me about being an adoptee is that now I win and win again. I get to have my cake and eat it too. I can see my mom and miss my mother. I can be an only child and have a sister and a brother. Bee and Teeny are surrounded with relatives: all people whom I love and who love me, my husband, and my children. They are a part of my life and a part of me. Family has very quickly become more important to me than anything else in the whole world. For so long I felt the opposite, but now I feel cared for and loved by so many. In that way I am lucky to have been adopted. You are all my family, and now I want to tell everyone.


  1. I'm sorry about this, because it was a safe place for you, too. Even if the leader's point was legitimate, she handled it poorly. It sounded to me as though having her there brought up some issues that may have been helpful to talk about. I can't imagine all the emotions adoptees experience, but it's sad to me that rejection and shame were added to yours because of a badly-planned conversation.

  2. Really incredible post, Aimee. I had no idea you were adopted; thanks for sharing your journey.

    And I'm really sorry the social worker handled that all so poorly. Really, I just can't believe she waited until the day of to ambush you with it and then casually suggest you just find a last minute sitter to deal. Especially since there was obviously time in the month prior to start that conversation and perhaps even have it over a couple of phone calls, allowing you time to process and her time to explain and help you through it.

    Hopefully your loss of this group isn't too hard and you're able to find continued support elsewhere if you feel you need it.



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